The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles is not just a fantastic new chapter in the franchise; it is also, so far, its brightest moment
The Great Ace Attorney was a series of two games released for the Nintendo 3DS in 2015 and 2017. And, as its title obviously announces, the story it tells and the gameplay it presents are part of the Ace Attorney franchise, the brainchild of Capcom’s Shu Takumi and a property which, by that point in time, had already birthed eight separate installments – including three spin-offs. Undoubtedly, such astonishing amount of entries, which were all pretty solid in terms of quality, spoke volumes about the franchise’s creator’s ability to weave complex and twisty criminal mysteries; after all, given their focus on plot, the greatness of each Ace Attorney game has always been primarily measured through the level of writing seen in the cases it boasts. However, at the same time, the profusion of installments was also a display of the property’s undying popularity.
Yet, despite the fact Ace Attorney is beloved around the globe, after 2015 fans of that universe who live outside Japan had to contend with the doubt of whether or not they would ever get to play The Great Ace Attorney, since a release in the western market was – according to Capcom’s own words – uncertain. In fact, that question mark was so big and anxiety was so large that many were the players who opted to take a shortcut, via a fan-made translation, to experience a pair of games that was generally perceived to be a notable evolution for the franchise. This emotional trial would only come to an end six years later, when – under the name of The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles – the two parts of the series were announced and released in what amounts to a mighty and thoroughly gripping package.
The Great Ace Attorney exists in the very same universe that houses unforgettable characters such as Phoenix Wright, Miles Edgeworth, Dick Gumshoe, Maya Fey, and countless others. Nonetheless, differently from previous entries in the franchise, which featured at least part of that cast in one way or another, The Great Ace Attorney has a far more tenuous connection to those beloved figures, and for a very good reason: it takes place more than one hundred years before the first Ace Attorney title, with its protagonist being an ancestor of Phoenix Wright himself. Still, even with such a temporal gap, all elements of the game should be familiar to longtime aficionados in both nature and quality, because be it in gameplay, tone, animations, narrative style, and plot twists, The Great Ace Attorney carries the unmistakable fingerprints of Shu Takumi’s work.
The story begins all the way in Japan, when protagonist Ryunosuke Naruhodo is accused of a crime. At that point, his best friend, Kazuma Asogi, who happens to be a law student, steps in to defend his buddy in court. A problem emerges, though. Kazuma is about to embark on an important exchange program to England, something that has been a lifelong dream of his, and suffering a defeat in trial could jeopardize his shot at the scholarship. Warned about it, Ryunosuke – who is not training to be a lawyer – tells the judge he will defend himself, with Kazuma remaining at his side in the role of a legal assistant. Following a successful defense, Kazuma is impressed with Ryunosuke’s natural talent as an attorney and makes a proposal to his friend: he is to, illegally, accompany him to England in order to study law by his side. On the way there, however, an incident occurs that forces Ryunosuke to take the spotlight and serve as the Japanese envoy to the country.
From the get go, there are two aspects about The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles that should be pointed out as being essential components to its greatness. The first is its setting. Due to choices made in the localization process, previous Ace Attorney games took place in a fictional country that merged elements of Japanese and American culture. In that regard, The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles is radically different thanks to how it happens in locations (England and Japan) that are very much real and in a time period (between the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th century) that is clearly defined. That slice of realism does not necessarily make its setting superior to that of its predecessors, but it does create interesting opportunities for the game to bring a dash of actual history into its frequently cartoonish and outlandish proceedings; and, by all means, the title takes absolute advantage of that open door.
The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles depicts Japan during the Meiji Period and catches England in the height of its imperial power, the Victorian Era. And these two facts are a central part of much of what happens throughout the game. Japan is opening itself up to western influences and trying to modernize its society, which explains Ryunosuke and Kazuma’s journey to Britain, as they seek to learn from a more advanced legal system in order to eventually return to their land to help move their country forward. England, meanwhile, is a bright beacon that hides dark undertones. It may be seen as the peak of civilization at the time, but it has visible social problems stemming from the inequality produced by the Industrial Revolution; it has a wealthy minority who abuses their financial power to escape the law as well as take advantage of others; and, with their ego boosted by a perceived superiority in relation to other nations, it has folks who are not shy to be racist, with a good portion of that being aimed at the main characters themselves. The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles does not shy away from these historical prickly matters, and it gains a lot with that decision.
The second aspect that gives The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles a notable boost is its nature as a collection, since it gathers – in the same package – two games that, together, tell an overarching story of massive scope. To a degree, one might argue that the same applies to the original Phoenix Wright trilogy; now available as a single game, its three installments and fourteen episodes hold mysteries and character arches that only conclude in the closing moments of the final chapter. However, as if he got better through practice, the tale created by Shu Takumi this time around feels much more unified, to the point that the first game does not feel complete without the second due to how many major question marks remain up in the air once it wraps up. By hitting the western market as a product that pulls together those two pieces, The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles comes off as an epic tale of rarely seen scope, spanning ten episodes and a whopping sixty hours of incredible mysteries and breathtaking courtroom action.
As any Ace Attorney fan should know, the franchise’s gameplay is clearly divided into two very different segments, investigations and trials, with almost every case featuring a little bit of both. Naturally, The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles does not stray away from that path, and anyone who has previous experience with the series ought to feel right at home from the very start. Yet, on the two fronts, the game implements changes that significantly push the property forward.
Investigations unfold like point-and-click adventures. Ryunosuke and his companion, judicial assistant Susato Mikotoba, travel between relevant locations, which can be selected from a menu. Upon arriving at their destination, they can search the scene for clues or evidence (which, depending on their nature, can them be rotated and further analyzed on the menu), talk to the characters who are there, and show them items to see what they have to say about them. Picked apart in a bubble, those mechanics are neither too exciting nor revolutionary, as point-and-click games that feature those exact same actions have been around since the 1980s. Still, given the dialogues and searches that happen during investigations are always anchored on the intricate criminal cases Ryunosuke gets thrown into, this utterly straightforward format actually ends up mustering an inescapable allure, having the same effect as a page-turner penned by a literary giant of the murder mystery genre, like Agatha Christie.
As far as minor improvements go, investigations feature three of them. The first is that places of interest on the screen – that is, objects and details that will trigger discoveries or dialogues – cause the cursor to change color, meaning that clicking on meaningless items is no longer a possibility. Furthermore, and on a similar sense, once a point has already been investigated or a character has already revealed all information they have to offer, a check mark will appear as the cursor hovers over them, which eliminates the triggering of redundant actions. The most significant small scale change in the point-and-click segments, though, is simply how the flow of investigations is much smoother this time around.
In previous Ace Attorney games, it was not uncommon for players to get stuck during investigations; that happened because, on many occasions, moving the plot forward involved obscure actions like analyzing a hardly noticeable detail of the scenario or showing a character a specific piece of evidence. When that occurred, players were left to move between locations and execute random actions until something miraculously happened, allowing them to get out of a very dull loop. In The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles situations like those rarely happen: at most, players will encounter one or two of them. And the reason for that is that the game is far clearer about what needs to be done: once all necessary actions are executed at a certain place, a dialogue sequence will invariably happen, and through this characters will blatantly state what their next move should be.
Undoubtedly, there are a few players who might be bothered by that change, since they will end up feeling that the investigations of The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles are excessively guided. And that is certainly not an incorrect evaluation. However, the bottom line is that this streamlining almost completely eliminates the possibility that one will get stuck in a maddening and boring loop. Consequently, it is arguable that what is gained due to the change is more valuable than what is lost.
All those shifts are nice, but they pale in comparison to the game’s largest addition to investigations: the world-famous great detective Herlock Sholmes. The character, whose name had to suffer minor alterations to avoid conflicts with the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is one of the stars of The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles: he plays a major role in various plot developments and becomes a very close friend to protagonist Ryunosuke Naruhodo, who even goes on to live in the detective’s iconic Baker Street address. It is during the investigations, though, that players will most vividly feel the impact of his presence.
Although Herlock Sholmes is quite gifted, sometimes anticipating events in unbelievable fashion, his deductions are a bit off. And when, during pivotal moments in investigations, he unleashes a series of them whilst hilariously moving moving around other characters (with theatrical spotlight effects included), Ryunosuke will have to step in to make slight corrections that will turn amusingly misguided deductions into precise reasoning that will let players see through the fog that frequently surrounds the game’s mysteries. Sholmes’ deductions are chains of sentences that culminate with the detective arriving at a conclusion thanks to an object or detail on the scene; however, his aim usually requires some adjustment, and when that moment comes – as the original deduction is replayed – the screen will freeze, allowing players to move the camera around and use the cursor to select an object or detail that will replace the highlighted word, unlocking therefore the truth behind what they are seeing.
For example, Sholmes may claim a character is acting suspiciously for a reason that is revealed by the note he has on his hand. Realizing that does not make a whole lot of sense, Ryunosuke will stop the scene and players might rotate the camera to select something else, like a dirty teacup on the table or a wad of bills hanging out from from the character’s pockets. Since there is always a very limited number of objects on the screen, the deduction game is often not that hard to figure out. Nevertheless, it is impossible to deny that it adds a nice flavor to investigations and works like a spectacular display for the incredible Herlock Sholmes, someone who smoothly treads the line between shockingly brilliant and absurdly goofy.
The second major gameplay component of The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles is, naturally, the courtroom action, during which Ryunosuke – much like Phoenix Wright – will have to use his skill, his reasoning, and the information he has collected to defend his clients in cases that initially seem to doom them to a guilty verdict. As it happens in investigations, the basics of trials remain untouched; however, a couple of changes spice them up nicely.
Mostly, trials consist of testimonies. Witnesses will take the stand and, using between four and six brief sentences, they will relate events that put the defendant in a very bad position. Once they are done talking, Ryunosuke will proceed to his cross-examination, in which players can take two actions with the goal of pointing out inconsistencies: press witnesses or present evidence. The former will cause the attorney to ask witnesses to clarify what they have said: if they claim they saw suspicious movement, for example, Ryunosuke will likely ask them to elaborate. Pressing might have no effect other than producing more detailed dialogues, but on many occasions, the action will cause the lawyer to ask the witness to amend their statements with the new information, which might be absolutely necessary for contradictions to come to the surface.
Almost always, though, trials will only move forward if players present a piece of evidence against one of the statements of the testimonies to reveal a discrepancy between what is being said and the cold hard material facts. For instance, if a witness says they saw the victim moving after being shot, presenting the autopsy report that determines the person died instantly from a wound will show there is more to the case than meets the eye. To keep players from guessing, the game implements a health system that causes the lawyer to lose credibility whenever he fails to match a piece of evidence with the statement it contradicts; and if Ryunosuke loses five points, his client will be get a guilty verdict and players will have to restart the trial from the scene in which they messed up. It may be a small punishment, but it is enough to keep gamers honest.
Although they are the most common test players will have to face in trials, testimonies are far from being the only courtroom challenge, since as the sessions develop, Ryunosuke will have to present evidence to back up some of the reasoning he will develop, answer questions about the case, and even point to where exactly in the piece of evidence lies the contradiction or information he is trying to expose – such as singling out, on a map of the crime scene, the position where he believes his client was when the murder took place. Needless to say, failing at any of these tasks will also cause his credibility to take a hit.
As any Ace Attorney fan knows, trials are the very heart of the franchise, and for a multitude of reasons. For starters, it is through them that characters slowly pull the veil hiding the truth that lies behind the cases; and the journey to that conclusion is filled with a lot of drama as well as wild twists. Moreover, they manage to turn the work of a lawyer into an intriguing puzzle game that is awfully easy to grasp, since it is all about pointing to the evidence that contradicts a certain statement. The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles has one or two courtroom segments that feature problematic traits that are recurring in the franchise: sometimes, characters will be slow to come to conclusions that are already obvious to players, which reduces the impact of a few revelations; and sometimes even though players are aware of the contradiction they want to show, the combination of evidence and statement can be a bit foggy. Nonetheless, those moments are – as a whole – rare, and they do not detract considerably from the absolutely stunning legal drama that the game features.
To boot, that thrilling courtroom gameplay is enhanced via a pair of changes that The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles masterfully implements. The first appears in how some witnesses take the stand in groups. In these situations, when one of them is being pressed, another might react to a statement through body language; when that happens, players can switch their focus to that affected person to ask them if they have anything to add in relation to what is being said. Doing so will cause a debate to unfold and a contradictory claim to emerge. Although the reactions are so obvious they cannot possibly be missed, meaning there is little challenge involved, it is nice to have a new way to unearth additional statements that will invariably be necessary to move trials forward.
The second change, and by far the most significant one, is only present in the trials that take place in England (which are the majority of the game’s episodes), and they are related to the fact the country has a more advanced legal system than Japan. In Britain, the decision regarding the defendant is not solely in the hands of the judge, as a group of six jurors randomly selected from London’s population will be in the courtroom to vote on whether Ryunosuke’s clients are guilty or innocent. And it is only when all of them have settled on a specific position that the judge can deliver the due punishment.
As it turns out, with the help of his assistant, Ryunosuke uncovers an old and rarely used loophole in the country’s law that allows the defense to conduct what is called a Summation Examination in case the jury lands on a guilty verdict. It goes without saying that such a situation is reached multiple times throughout the adventure, and when that happens, each juror will have to summarize – in a short sentence – the reasoning that has led them to voting for a guilty outcome. As it occurs in testimonies, Ryunosuke can press each juror for clarification and his ultimate goal is identifying contradictions. The difference, though, is that such contradictions are usually not made clear by evidence, but by selecting two jurors whose claims, when combined, reveal some sort of hole. If he pits those two members of the jury, a discussion will ensue and they will likely change their minds, with the Summation Examination being concluded – and the trial dramatically extended – if four of the six jurors switch their vote to not guilty.
Summation Examinations are a brilliant and unexpected new form of textual puzzle. And they are an addition to a gameplay facet that already seemed quite complete. As such, they prove that, moving forward, the Ace Attorney franchise has the capacity of uncovering new ways to reveal contradictions that do not involve the already traditional riddles of matching up statements with pieces of evidence.
Underlining all of that are the traditional qualities of the Ace Attorney franchise. The plot seamlessly merges events of serious nature – such as murder, racism, and personal dramas – with absurd wackiness, as it is seen in Sholmes’ ridiculous deductions, in some aspects of the cases which verge on the outlandish, and in characters who are delightfully ridiculous caricatures (the main police inspector of the game, for instance, is always eating fish and chips, while the menacing prosecutor against whom Ryunosuke acts in court is visually inspired by Count Dracula). To boost its nature as a game that can both produce tension and genuine laughter, The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles uses its production values to build a cartoonish charm, with characters reacting to situations via exaggerated animations, speech bubbles dramatically being used in court to represent sudden interruptions by the parts involved, and sound effects that would be right at home in an anime being employed to accentuate the already hyperactive energy of key moments.
As for the cases themselves, which are ultimately the most important part of any title of the franchise, The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles does not disappoint in the slightest. It is true the adventure starts a bit slow, with the first episode dragging for longer than it should and the second one disappointingly lacking a courtroom segment due to the circumstances in which it unfolds. However, everywhere else, there is little to complain about, as all cases are smartly written mysteries that have more turnabouts than one can count. To top it off, following the saga’s traditions, most – if not all – episodes are not just gripping criminal tales, but also relevant to the overarching overall plot that plays out across the ten cases, always carrying essential bits of character development or valuable information that will be tied to the collection’s largest mystery when the curtain closes. In that regard, The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles is particularly stellar in how it neatly ties multiple treads and question marks in a thoroughly satisfying way and more expertly than many acclaimed storytelling works out there.
Because of those immense qualities, The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles is an absolute must for both longtime fans of the franchise that have been anticipating its arrival for a while and newcomers that are curious to see what the fuss is about. All that it is required for one to fall in love with the magnificent and epic tale contained inside the package is love for mysteries, reading, and storytelling, since this is a text-heavy experience whose word count is comparable to that of an average-sized saga of books.
Inserted in a tradition inaugurated by the trilogy starring Phoenix Wright, The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles carries the expected characteristics that have always made the franchise a thrill to play: gripping cases, unforgettable characters, quality humor, cartoonish production values, and text-based puzzles that bring creative gameplay to trials and investigations alike. However, two factors in particular play an essential role in making the title feel like a peak for the property: the fact its ten episodes gravitate around a greater mystery, creating an epic of nigh unimaginable scope; and the quality of its gameplay additions, which make the action in and out of the courtroom more engaging than ever. Because of that, The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles is not just a great new chapter in the saga; it is also, so far, its brightest moment.